UK is one of the largest exporters of electronic waste, says report © SSPL/Getty Images
UK is one of the largest exporters of electronic waste, says report © SSPL/Getty Images

Tech giants attacked over B2B prices and planned obsolescence

27 November 2020

The government should ban planned obsolescence and force online retailers such as Apple and Amazon to ensure their products can be repaired, according to MPs.

The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) warned in its report on Electronic Waste and the Circular Economy that such steps were necessary to stop UK recycling falling behind other nations.

MPs said bricks and mortar retailers showed a greater sense of responsibility towards the environment by collecting old electronics but online retailers failed to do so.  

Hot on the heels of the report the government fired another salvo towards large tech firms by announcing a new Digital Markets Unit to govern the behaviour of platforms such as Google and Facebook, amid evidence businesses and consumers are paying higher prices for goods and services.

The EAC said in its report: “For all their protestations of claimed sustainability, major online retailers and marketplaces such as Amazon have so far avoided playing their part in the circular economy by not collecting or recycling electronics in the way other organisations have to.”

The committee said online vendors should be forced to collect old products and pay for their recycling – especially given the “astronomical growth in sales” they have enjoyed during lockdown.

Tech companies such as Apple were criticised in the report for making it hard or impossible for consumers to repair items themselves and designing products with “planned obsolescence”.

Apple was found to glue and solder internal components so consumers were forced to pay excessively expensive repair bills or replace items altogether because it was cheaper.

The committee urged the government to make it a legal obligation for manufacturers to make sure products could be repaired and to ban planned obsolescence.

Lawmakers said ensuring products were built to last could help ensure future supply of precious metals such as gold, tungsten, lithium and cobalt – common in electronic components.

Global supply of these metals, which are vital to produce wind turbines, solar panels and car batteries, will run out, potentially thwarting efforts to shift to a low-carbon economy.

The government should invest in high quality recycling to avoid old electronics being exported, incinerated or sent to landfill where the metals could be lost forever.

The report said the UK was one of the largest exporters of electronic waste in the world, with some estimating that of 40% of electronic waste is sent overseas, where it is often dumped.

EAC chairman Philip Dunne said: “For too long companies like Amazon and Apple have been dodging their environmental responsibilities for the products they sell.”

Meanwhile, in a report responding to a Competition and Markets Authority investigation into the power of digital platforms, the government said there was evidence businesses were “facing higher prices on the dominant platforms” which were then passed on to consumers, while Facebook and Google were “consistently earning profits well above what is required to reward investors with a fair return”.

“There is growing consensus – here and abroad – that the unprecedented concentration of power amongst a small number of tech companies is restraining growth, holding back innovation and potentially causing harm to the citizens and businesses that rely on them,” said the report.

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